Watch now: The panel discussion in full on ESG and communications: Bridging the ‘say-do gap’
Today, organisations increasingly want to position their commitment to sustainability best practice but at the same time need practical help to raise internal standards.
To coincide with the launch of PRWeek’s fourth annual Power Book for the Middle East, PRWeek convened with three experts to discuss ESG and communications, and how to bridge the ‘say-do gap’.
Danny Rogers, editor-in-chief of PRWeek UK and EMEA, chaired the discussion, and was joined by panellists Sunil John, president – Middle East and North Africa of BCW and founder of ASDA’A BCW (the Power Book partner), Vasuki Shastry, a published author and former global head of public affairs & sustainability at Standard Chartered Bank, London, and Belinda Scot, head of sustainability of Gulf International Bank and fellow of the Climate Safe Lending Network.
With the next two UN Climate Change (COP) summits taking place in the Middle East and a huge focus on its transition to new forms of energy, the importance of ESG in communications strategy is growing all the time.
However, new research by ASDA’A BCW’s specialist ESG advisory, OnePoint5, found that more than 60% of companies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE don’t have a framework for ESG. Furthermore, even in those that do, only half fully understand it.
John said the research points to a “say-do gap” where companies are struggling to live up to the ESG ideals that they espouse and to articulate them to their audiences.
Investors and consumers
“With the newly emerging vocal stakeholder community there is greater scrutiny not only on what clients say, but what they do and how they behave, their purpose, their social impact,” John said.
At a consumer level, ASDA’A BCW has also found from its annual Arab Youth Survey that half of individuals are prepared to boycott brands that do not take their responsibilities seriously in areas such as sustainability.
For MENA companies, climate issues are particularly important, as it is predicted that temperatures in the region are rising twice as fast as the global average.
Shastry said that on ESG adoption, Middle East businesses are where the US and Europe were a decade ago but that developed markets are not as far ahead as they might think.
“Even though regulations have caught up, certainly in terms of greater disclosure and transparency, in more developed markets, the say-do gap can exist. It is a phenomenon that cuts across markets,” he said.
What started out as a concern promoted by governments is cascading down to be picked up by the private sector who have a vital role to play.
The ESG conversation is one everyone is still learning to deliver, and it has to be pitched appropriately to different audiences, said Scot.
“You don’t talk about ESG to the board in the same way you would talk to a frontline customer service agent. You’ve got to build those internal discussions and the internal knowledge so that it’s relevant to people, there’s not one size fits all,” she said.
Scot added that organisations have to be very clear on reporting and distinguish between hard results and their aspirations, otherwise they could risk being accused of ‘greenwashing’. Authenticity and transparency are key, and strategy needs to be underpinned with KPIs that are measurable and material.
“Whilst we all want to be seen as doing a lot of good, it’s important to be clear and honest about achievements,” she said.
Shastry said that ESG has been around for decades but the communication element has been behind the curve. With increasing investor focus on ESG, comms could no longer be a junior partner.
“If you’re not able to articulate what your business is all about and link it with social purpose, investors and the stakeholders are beginning to differentiate,” he said. “Communicators need to step in and make sure the story a company tells is grounded in facts. Plain-speaking helps.”
For the Middle East there is huge scrutiny on organisations’ ESG stance, from the young as well as the investor community, said John.
“The landscape is changing fast. I think both governments and businesses are really challenged in this environment,” he said. “There is positive pressure on companies and on governments to adopt those policies, because the more they delay, the more the region will find it extremely difficult to transition to a more carbon free future.”
Scot said that attitudes to ESG had varied throughout the Middle East, with some markets, such as the UAE, progressing faster than others, however governments across the region are committing to net zero which has added momentum in the growing uptake of sustainability and ESG within organisations. With issues such as access to finance and new markets linked to an organisation’s ESG performance, there is growing realisation of how important it is to implement ESG-related practices.
Shastry said: “One of the most interesting phenomena that we’ve seen over the past decade is this convergence where investors feel that they have the power and the levers to influence corporate behaviour.”
With the Middle East home to major renewables projects in solar and nuclear energy, the region is taking up the ESG and climate change challenge.
The UAE has invested over $50bn in the past 10 years on renewable energy projects in 40 countries and recently committed another $50bn for the next decade.
Shastry added: “The challenges are grave, but I think speaking to some corporate executives, it really gives me a great deal of hope that all of them want to embark on the journey and they want to do it right.”
Thank you to ASDA’A BCW for sponsoring the PRWeek Power Book Middle East and this panel discussion.